§ 11.30 a.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (The Earl of Arran) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 7th June be approved.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, the draft order authorises expenditure of £3,116 million for Northern Ireland departments in the current financial year. That is additional to the sum voted on account in February, and brings total estimates provision for Northern Ireland departments to £5,492 million. That is an increase of 9.6 per cent. on 1992–93 provisional outturn.
§ Before turning to the details of the Estimates, I should like to set them in the context of the recent performance of the Northern Ireland economy. The local economy has been remarkably resilient despite the severe recession which has affected the United Kingdom. Indeed, there is general recognition that Northern Ireland has fared better than most other regions of the United Kingdom. Industrial output levels have remained relatively stable and employment has fallen by less than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Recent trends in unemployment have been encouraging, with seasonally adjusted unemployment falling by 2,900 in the past three months. Recent surveys of the local business community point to a marked upturn in business confidence, improved export market performance and high levels of planned investment, but we cannot, of course, be complacent. Unemployment is still too high and the single market will present challenges as well as opportunities. However, Northern Ireland is well placed to take advantage of the recovery in the national economy now under way.
§ I now turn, to the main items of expenditure covered by the order, and detailed in the Estimates booklet, starting with the Department of Agriculture. Total net provision in the two agriculture Votes amounts to some £151 million. In Vote I, £29 million is for EC and national agriculture and fishery support measures. That covers the various market support schemes under the reformed common agricultural policy and introduces support measures for the local potato sector; £9 million is to assist structural improvements and £18 million is for support for farming in less favoured areas.
§ In Vote 2, some £122 million is for regional agriculture, fisheries, forestry and support measures. That includes £53 million for agricultural, scientific and veterinary services. It covers a wide range of professional and technical services, including animal health and disease control; £28 million is for watercourse management, fisheries and forestry and £11 million for the agricultural development operational programme.1642
§ In the Department of Economic Development's Vote 1, £148 million is for the Industrial Development Board. This will enable it to carry out its role of strengthening Northern Ireland's industrial base and to meet its existing commitments, primarily in the area of selective assistance to industry. The board also aims to attract internationally competitive inward investors. Together with the development of existing companies, this provides a sound base for growth in durable employment.
§ In Vote 2, £37 million is for the Local Enterprise Development Unit. Total employment in firms assisted by the unit is now almost 28,000; £9.8 million is for the Industrial Research and Technology Unit, to assist in the creation of a strong industrial base in Northern Ireland.
§ Finally in Vote 2, £11.9 million is for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board to assist the further development of tourism in Northern Ireland. For the fourth successive year, a record number of visitors—I.25 million—came to Northern Ireland last year.
§ In Vote 3, £193 million is for the Training and Employment Agency. This includes £47 million for the youth training programme; £52 million for the "Action for Community Employment" programme; and £21 million for the job training programme.
§ I now turn to the Estimates for the Department of the Environment. In Vote 1,£176 million is for roads, transport and ports. This includes £144 million for the roads service, where emphasis is being placed on the maintenance of Northern Ireland's well-developed road system.
§ DoE Vote 2 covers the important area of housing. Some £193 million is to provide assistance to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and to the voluntary housing movement. When net borrowing and the housing executive's rents and capital receipts are taken into account, the total resources available for housing will be some £552 million.
§ In Vote 3, gross expenditure on the water and sewerage services in 1993–94 is estimated a t £174 million. That is an increase of some £27 million over 1992–93 outturn; £77 million is for capital expenditure and £97 million for operational and maintenance purposes.
§ In DoE Vote 4, £135 million is for environmental services. Increased resources are being devoted to monitoring and controlling pollution and the number of water quality sampling stations has been increased; £37 million is for urban regeneration measures. It will be targeted at areas of social, economic and environmental need.
§ The Estimates for the Department of Education seek a total of £1,253 million, an increase of 2.5 per cent. over last year. Vote 1 includes £772 million for recurrent expenditure by education arid library boards. That includes £407 million for school teachers' salaries and £250 million for other expenditure on schools and on further education services; £115 million is for libraries, youth, transport and administration; £129 million is for voluntary schools and £8 million for integrated schools. I know that your Lordships continue to take a keen interest in the development of integrated education in Northern 1643 Ireland. There are now 18 integrated schools in operation, with over 3,300 pupils in attendance. I think that your Lordships will agree that that is encouraging news.
§ Vote 2 includes £94 million for universities and £128 million for student support; £15 million is for arts and museums and £3 million for community relations activities funded by the Department of Education.
§ For the Department of Health and Social Services, total net provision is £1,209 million. This will maintain and improve the standard of the Province's health and personal social services. It is an increase of £74 million over estimated outturn for 1992–93.Spending on the family health services will be £250 million, while £929 million is for the health and social services boards; £38 million is for capital expenditure, to maintain a substantial programme of works.
§ In Vote 4, £1,127 million is for a range of social security benefits, an increase of more than 6 per cent. on last year. In Vote 5, £482 million is to cover expenditure on the Independent Living Funds, housing benefit, the Social Fund and payments to the National Insurance Fund.
§ Finally, I turn to the Department of Finance and Personnel. In Vote 3, over £4 million is for the community relations programme. It brings total spending on the programme to £7 million, reflecting the importance the Government attach to improving community relations.
§ I hope that your Lordships have found this short summary of the main components of the Estimates helpful. I commend the order to your Lordships. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 7th June be approved.—(The Earl of Arran.)
§ Lord Blease
My Lords, the usual procedure is for the appropriation order to be debated first in another place. Normally, I like to read what the elected representatives for Northern Ireland have to say on business matters and take some solace or leadership from them. However, on this occasion, if they wish to do so, they will be able to read the comments made in this House.
First, I should like to draw attention to the total sums mentioned by the Minister. The essence of appropriation orders is that they act as blood transfusions to the body politic in Northern Ireland. They are transfusions by which the economic and social life of the province can keep the heart of the community working in a purposeful way.
In the context of the UK Government's fiscal commitments the sums we are invited to consider demand a reasoned approach to the policies, support, accountability and effective and efficient use of the available resources. In that connection, I wish to compliment the Northern Ireland Audit Office on its work and the clear concise form of its published reports.
I turn to the order. I am not sure that I can deal in detail with the sums mentioned. I shall try to point out the Votes to which I shall refer. In the Vote for the Department of Health and Social Services (page 10) I 1644 wish to draw attention to the establishment of the Voluntary Activity Unit. That new unit was noted in our appropriation order debate on 25th February 1993. It was formally established on 16th June 1993 when an Assistant Secretary was appointed to the Department of Health and Social Services as head of the unit. I understand that a major part of the funding of that interdepartmental unit will be derived from the EC's structural funds. I see no amount relating to that unit in the Vote in the Northern Ireland 1993–93 estimates.
I have noted the Voluntary Activity Unit's strategy paper Support for the Voluntary Sector and for Community Development in Northern Ireland. In the light of that report which has just been issued, I welcome that initiative. I understand that the unit will play a lead role in co-ordinating voluntary activity and community service development. It will also provide the appropriate machinery for active interdepartmental participation. I note also that the unit's aim will be to ensure the effective and efficient development and delivery of appropriate community services. That is a worthy, laudable and timely aim. It is worthy of the support of this House and the community in Northern Ireland.
Will the Minister tell us the initial sum granted for that unit; and how and when the Department of Finance and Personnel proposes to carry out the consultations with interested bodies in the voluntary sector about the EC's structural funds plan? That department is separate from the department in which the unit has been set up. Wide-ranging co-ordination is required in that respect. Will the Voluntary Activity Unit publish an annual report?
I turn now to the Northern Ireland Economic Council which is referred to on two pages of the Estimates. It comes under the Department of Finance and Personnel which I note has had a decrease of £1,000 in the total funds granted to it. In June of this year the Northern Ireland Economic Council in its Report 102 entitled Business Confidence Surveys in Northern Ireland states:The aim of this discussion paper is to assess the results of business confidence surveys published on a regular basis in Northern Ireland. These surveys attract a good deal of media attention when published and, therefore, it is of interest to evaluate their accuracy and the degree of confidence that can be put on their results. In principle, a business survey should provide a guide to the state of business sentiment prevailing among participating firms and thus to their intentions concerning future business decisions. The surveys are, therefore, a key source of information on local economic trends".The proliferation of such reports, surveys and analyses published in Northern Ireland sometimes gives rise to considerable confusion. We must pursue a path that is in the best interests of all sections of the community. I realise that it is difficult for the Government and the Northern Ireland Office to react to those reports when it is considered necessary and desirable to do so. Some of those reports are reviewed in the Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel monthly economic report. They are useful but may not receive the coverage necessary.
I wish to draw the Minister's attention to the press reports of the Northern Ireland Economic Research 1645 Centre. It is an independent research institution which I understand has links with Queen's University, Belfast and Ulster University and with industrial bodies. According to the press report, the NIERC suggests that the long-term unemployed should be offered semi-permanent jobs. It continues by suggesting that the current levels of unemployment of 100,000, or 14 per cent., of the working population, were likely to continue at that level for the next 10 years.
The press report states that a spokesman for the Department of Economic Development welcomed the NIERC's views on the economy as they were in line with the Government's own views on the economy. Will the Minister undertake to inquire into the NIERC statement and the DED's comments? Will he tell us whether the Government have policies for the long-term unemployed as mentioned by the NIERC? Incidentally, there are no copies of the NIERC publication in the Library of the House of Lords.
The third point arising from the order is referred to in two reports: one from the Department of Finance and Personnel and the other from the Department of Economic Development. One report is entitled Research and Development Activity in Northern Ireland and the other relates to the Industrial Research and Technology Unit. On 7th May 1993, the Northern Ireland Economic Council published a press release on Report 101 on research and development. The press release states:The main findings of the Report is that Northern Ireland suffers from a low level of industrially financed R&D. Only 17 per cent. of private sector firms, accounting for 36 per cent. of employment, spent £49 million on R&D in 1991 in Northern Ireland. Industrially financed R&D in Northern Ireland amounted to just 0.4 per cent. of GDP, compared with 1.1 per cent. in the UK. 0.6 per cent. in the Republic of Ireland, 2.2 per cent. in Japan, 1.8 per cent. in Germany and 1.4 per cent. in the US".The press release continues:It is the Council's view that R&D policy in Northern Ireland has, in the past, lacked a sense of direction which is unfortunate given its importance to economic growth. In order to ensure that R&D plays its full part in increasing the competitiveness of the local economy the Council makes a series of policy recornmendations".The report then lists a series of recommendations. The Industrial Research and Technology Unit was established within the provisions of the Department for Economic Development. The IRTU's board, chairman and chief executive were appointed recently by the Secretary of State. The unit issued its corporate plan a few days ago. I consider that that plan should be warmly welcomed and supported. I understand that the role of the unit is to act as a focus, catalyst and facilitator. Will the Minister indicate how the corporate plan is to be pursued? We know that the unit has a board and a chief executive. How will it incorporate the sectoral approaches to the economy in Northern Ireland? How is its ongoing role to be evaluated and monitored? Will that be the function of the board or the department? Will a report be published annually? If the role of the IRTU is to be enhanced, why was the vote reduced by more than £1 million, according to page 51 of the Northern Ireland Estimates for 1993–94?
1646 The decision to review the Northern Ireland education reforms has been widely welcomed by teachers' organisations and parents. It is important. that the Ministers in Northern Ireland have an opportunity to review certain decisions in the light of discussions with organisations. The Training and Employment Agency's corporate and national plans have been published within the past few days. They have aroused considerable public interest. The agency's work is vital to the promotion of skills and employment and is to be warmly 'welcomed and supported. The announcement on 6th July of the creation of 600 jobs in the clothing industry in the north west of the Province is also to be warmly welcomed.
I wish to comment on the Health and Personal Social Services Order 1993. I know that the Minister has arranged for consultations with representatives of organisations in Northern Ireland which. are directly concerned with the order. However, I have been pressed to indicate the serious anxiety about the brief and difficult period allocated for consultations. I shall not go into detail about the time and so forth. This is an important and controversial piece of legislation and I believe that there are a number of valid reasons why the term should be extended. With those remarks I support the order.
§ 11.53 a.m.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I wish to raise a few technical matters of which I have given the Minister notice. The first concerns crime prevention. Will the Minister say whether the Government's conclusions on that matter have yet been published and if not when it is expected that they will be? The Minister will be well aware that ordinary crime, theft arid vandalism. impose considerable burdens on the whole community in Northern Ireland. Prevention will require real co-operation between numerous government departments and voluntary bodies. However, Northern Ireland has a population which is small enough to make possible an overall experiment in this field. which will be worthwhile. I hope that 25 years of research in the United States on the positive value of pre-school education and nurture will be taken into account.
I turn to fine default and defaulters. Will the Minister say what progress has been made on measures to reduce that, in particular to reduce the number of defaulters committed to prison, usually for very brief periods? If we can have progress on that matter it will have an important bearing on the future of the Crumlin Road prison, to which I shall refer in a moment. Can the Minister say when legislation on unit fines in Northern Ireland will be ready? Will the not altogether satisfactory experience in England and Wales be taken into account when it comes to legislating for Northern Ireland? Will the Minister also say when the Government expect to come forward with non-custodial penalties for fine defaulters? That is another important way of reducing the amount of imprisonment?
I turn to the Crumlin Road prison, which, as everyone knows, is an extremely old building. Will the 1647 Minister give us some hope that refurbishment of the cells will begin sooner than in late 1994, which is a previously forecast date? I am well aware that the matter depends on certain preliminary work being carried out but, obviously, the sooner improvements can be made to the cells the better. Perhaps I may observe in passing that it cannot be right that remand prisoners should be kept in conditions which are appreciably worse than those in the other two major men's prisons where people are serving long-term sentences.
Finally, I turn to the Northern Ireland prison rules. I understand that work is in progress on a revision of those rules. Will the Minister say what consultation is being undertaken with outside bodies as regards the revision? When will at least draft new rules be ready and available?
§ 11.56 a.m.
§ Lord Cooke of Islandreagh
My Lords, I welcome the order and thank the Minister for the manner in which he introduced it. It brings home to us in Northern Ireland just how much it costs to run Northern Ireland. We are aware of that in particular because of the high costs associated with terrorism. We hope that that can be removed as quickly as possible. I do not wish to go into the accounts in detail because I intend to comment further on the next order. However, perhaps I may ask questions in respect of three straightforward matters.
Consultation is now in hand for the post-1993 European Community structural funds. That is important because the funds are sizeable. They are particularly important in Northern Ireland because of the substantial sums which are expected across the border in the Republic of Ireland. The Department of Finance and Personnel has issued an excellent consultation paper which is now being discussed. I hope that the standard of consultation and discussion will continue as the plans take shape.
In the past, European funds for grants such as this have been subject to additionality. That means that if any funds come from the EC, the Treasury will withdraw equivalent amounts which were to be spent on that project. That is disheartening and blunts the planning process. Is the noble Earl able to advise us that the rules of additionality no longer apply?
Sadly, bomb damage on a massive scale continues. Thousands of householders, shopkeepers and so forth, are having to repair bomb damage. The way in which compensation has been paid has taken into account betterment. That means that if a shopkeeper replaces a roof which has been blown off he will not receive compensation because the new roof is said to be better than the old one. That may well be, but all the poor sufferer of the bomb damage wants is to get his roof replaced. It seems unfair not to pay full compensation because of so-called betterment.
As regards road surfaces, we are fortunate in Northern Ireland to have an excellent road system which permits fast and reasonably safe movement from one place to another. One of the most dangerous roads at present is the road from Antrim to 1648 Ballymena. The first stage of the dual carriage-way was completed some three years ago and it was intended to commence the second stage immediately afterwards, but that appears to have been put back for some years. It is an important road. Perhaps the Minister will be able to give some better news as to when the second stage of the dual carriage-way will be commenced. I support the order.
§ Lord Fitt
My Lords, I wish to raise one important subject which I have already discussed with the Minister. It is in relation to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. The Government have given guarantees that the future of the hospital is secure, that there is no intention to run it down, and that all rumours to the contrary are malicious. That is the Government's view but that is not the view of the people who live in West Belfast.
The hospital has been in existence for 150 years. Its patients come from both the loyalist and republican communities. It is the one thing on which those two communities agree: they do not wish to see the run-down or closure of the Royal Victoria Hospital. At present in that area of Belfast there are two constituency doctors who are campaigning in that regard—Dr. Des Hall and Dr. Joe Hendron, who is also the Member of Parliament for the area. I take a great interest in this matter because I was formerly the elected representative for West Belfast. I speak in the debate knowing that the Minister who is to reply is in charge of hospital services in the City of Belfast.
One hears varying accounts of what is to happen and what is rumoured to happen. The general public in Northern Ireland believe that the ENT departments in the hospital are to be closed down completely and that a whole lot of electro-surgery departments are to be closed down completely and transferred to another hospital outside the constituency.
I know that the Government will approach the matter from the point of view of cutting costs but when dealing with hospitals in Belfast there is much more at stake than the pure cost of the hospitals. As has been said by Dr. Des Hall, who is a great campaigner on this issue, the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast is an institution which has held together the social fabric of the people in that area. There has never been any dispute among the various communities, whatever their religious and political ideals, about that hospital. It is extremely important that the hospital should be kept open, irrespective of what decisions have been arrived at by the Government. Six thousand people in West Belfast are employed in that hospital and it is quite obvious that, if it is run down to the extent that has been advocated, many of those 6,000 people will lose their jobs, as will those who work in the small shops which depend for their income on the people who work there. The economic consequences of the closure of the hospital would be absolutely chaotic for that area.
I know that the Minister has received many deputations from all sections of the community in West Belfast. There have been demonstrations and assurances have been given. I should the like the Minister to give an assurance in this House that the 1649 future of the Royal Victoria Hospital is secure and that it will not be closed down or run down merely on a cost-effective basis.
§ 12.4 p.m.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, those of us who follow closely the affairs of Northern Ireland and who meet on Friday mornings and late at night derive a great deal of encouragement from the quality of our debates, even though there are not many noble Lords here. I thank the noble Earl for the way in which he introduced the order and I thank those noble Lords who have spoken so far. I certainly support the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, in his plea for the Royal Victoria Hospital.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Blease, whose experience of the affairs of Northern Ireland was reflected in the very comprehensive set of questions that he asked the noble Earl.
It is right to put the order in some perspective. Although there is exceptionally bad news politically in Northern Ireland, which we shall no doubt come to in our discussions on the next order, not all is bad economically. As we know, there has been a terrible recession in the United Kingdom as a whole, but Northern Ireland has proved relatively resilient to that recession. For example, unemployment is now only 6.7 per cent. higher than it was in April 1990, the previous trough; whereas in the rest of the United Kingdom the rise has been nearly 90 per cent. over that period. Since February, when seasonally adjusted unemployment in Northern Ireland peaked at 170,400, it has fallen to 104,500. That is still a great many people unemployed but the tide is moving in the right direction. There has been a fall from 14.3 per cent. to 13.9 per cent. and the number of unemployed fell by over 1,000 from April to May.
In the most recent CBI survey of business confidence in Northern Ireland, 31 per cent. of industrialists expect capital investment to increase whereas only 10 per cent. expect it to fall; 25 per cent. expect general investment to increase and only 10 per cent. expect it to fall. Therefore, there is a mild breeze of economic recovery in Northern Ireland.
We all know that, economically, that has a great deal to do with government support because 40 per cent. of all jobs in Northern Ireland are, in one way or another, government funded. Harland and Wolff, a major employer. still relies heavily on government defence contracts. Therefore, this appropriation order continues to be the bedrock on which the Northern Ireland economy rests.
From the point of view of taxpayers in mainland Britain, it is quite a heavy burden. It comes to about £100 per household. From these Benches we believe that that is a burden which must be taken up. It is a responsibility that we cannot avoid. However, we must make sure that the large sums of money spent—and I know that this is one of the preoccupations of the Government—are spent as wisely and as prudently as possible.
1650 I have one or two specific points to raise which I have mentioned to the Minister in comparing this appropriation order with the previous one. Why has the sum granted to the Department of Economic Development gone down, especially that part assigned to the local enterprise development unit? That is down from £53.5 million in last year's order to approximately £48 million. The noble Earl will know that that department is responsible for expenditure on local enterprise, labour mark et services and energy efficiency. I should have thought that all those are crucial to an economy which is struggling to recover from a recession. For example, I wonder whether energy efficiency would be improved were the electricity inter-connections with the South to be restored.
My second question about the order is: why has the: sum granted to the Department of Finance and Personnel gone down, especially that portion assigned to community relations, cultural tradition and the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council? That figure is down from £2.9 million in 1992 to just under £2.5 million this year.
I raise that in particular because community relations are more important in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the UK. The Government must be extremely careful not to make false economies in that area. There have been very shaky events in Northern Ireland. One of the priorities in the Government's mind should be that community relations and cultural traditions are worth every penny of the funding which they inspire. Having asked those questions of the Minister, he can take it that the order has the general support of these Benches.
§ 12.10 p.m.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the Minister for the care and the clarity with which he explained the main provisions of the order to the House. I look forward with great interest to hearing his response to the range of questions that have been asked this morning.
At about this time of the year, when seeking the approval of Parliament to the supply of money, it has become the practice of Ministers to offer an optimistic review of the performance of the Northern Ireland economy. That seems to me to be the recurring theme of speeches. Indeed, this morning the Minister referred to the economy being remarkably resilient. If I may say so, those are precisely the words that were used by the noble Earl a year ago. Of course, it is important that the Government should be making that point whenever possible as the economy, in terms of the Government's priorities, is second only to the maintenance of law and order, and rightly so.
Therefore, while I believe that it is fair to say that the economy is in a better shape than we would have expected two years ago, it is premature at this stage to speak confidently about the recovery. Indeed, that is the message from the April assessment of the Economic Council.
As has been mentioned, the total funding authorised by the order is, once again, very substantial. I fully agree with the noble Lord, Lord 1651 Holme, that that is fully justified. The reasons for it are well known. But, given the fact that Northern Ireland is so heavily dependent upon public expenditure, any significant cutbacks in public spending which apply across the board will be more threatening in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. It follows that we are concerned at the cuts that may be applied in the autumn, and their consequences.
I am in no position to say anything about the merits of the allocation between the departments, but I assume—and I hope that the Minister can assure us —that that aspect is being constantly reviewed by Ministers. It needs to be constantly and closely examined. Again, that point was made in the report of the Economic Council.
Bearing all that in mind, I wish to draw attention to one or two of the programmes in which I happen to have an interest in order to seek information and clarification. I shall begin with the Department of Health and Social Services as it is the Minister's special field of responsibility. For many years, the NHS in Northern Ireland has had more health service staff per head employed in the service than any health authority in England and Wales. I am not quite sure about the position in Scotland. Yet, Northern Ireland has the largest proportion of patients—that is, one in five —waiting for more than a year for treatment. What is the explanation for that long waiting time? One wonders whether there is a mismatch of resources locally. Are the operating theatre sessions badly organised? Further, is there a failure of management at board level or within the hospitals? That has been suggested by some of the consultants at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Perhaps the Minister can assure the House that the matter is at least being studied.
The morbidity statistics show that Northern Ireland has the highest male death rate from heart disease of any region in the United Kingdom. Is that significant statistic being inquired into by the medical school or by a university department? Alternatively, has an outside body been commissioned to consider it? Further, is the Health Promotion Agency addressing the issue in any helpful way? The situation seems to point to a need for greater emphasis to be placed on preventive care.
I must tell the Minister that I very much appreciate his willingness to meet a deputation later on this month to discuss the widespread concerns among social workers arising out of the possible legislation which will enable community trusts to manage the children's service of Northern Ireland. The Minister will know that there is a very strong conviction among professionals in Northern Ireland that the envisaged legislation will produce the wrong model of care. I also trust that the Minister will look carefully at the case of the Royal Victoria Hospital. I am absolutely sure that my noble friend Lord Fitt was right to raise the issue in your Lordships' House.
Before I leave the Minister's special responsibilities, can he tell the House what steps the Northern Ireland Social Security Agency is taking to recover 1652 overpayments of income support benefit and mortgage interest, which was the subject of the 39th report from the Public Accounts Committee?
Northern Ireland has the youngest population of any region in the United Kingdom. Given the high birthrate, why is it that provision for nursery education is so woefully inadequate? The education departments in England and Wales have a very poor reputation in that regard, as was vigorously demonstrated during the passage through the House of the Education Bill. But Northern Ireland has an even worse record. It has the lowest level of publicly-funded childcare in the whole of the UK, having only five places available in day nurseries for every 1,000 children. Surely Northern Ireland should be doing far better than that? More day places would bring so many beneficial results and possibly the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, had that in mind. It will even help to make it possible for more women to continue in employment, which is an important issue being addressed by the Equal Opportunities Commission. In the longer term, it might be a small part of the solution to the chronic problem of under-achievement in the secondary schools, which is one of the features of the education system. Can the Minister offer any words of reassurance?
I turn now to the Vote on economic development. I should like briefly to mention two points. The department is at the core of the job creation programme in Northern Ireland. We are all aware that the PAC has looked critically at the number of jobs actually created by LEDU and the cost of the jobs created. It published its report in May. I must say that I was not entirely surprised at the line pursued by the PAC as I had already picked up some of the concerns two or three years ago. When does the department expect to be in a position to reply to the report?
One item that surprises me in the detailed breakdown of the Estimates, notwithstanding what was said by the Minister about the tourist industry in Northern Ireland and its potential, is that in Vote 2 the expenditure on tourist development is slightly down. I believe that the main reduction will be on promotion and marketing. I had understood that the Government—and, indeed, the Government of the Republic—fully recognise that tourism is a growth industry capable of contributing substantially to economic prosperity in many parts of the island of Ireland. That is particularly so at a time when agriculture is shedding so much labour. Perhaps the Minister can explain the proposed curtailment.
Within Northern Ireland reconciliation is essential to the work of the Government. I agree very much with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Holme. Therefore, special encouragement has to be given at all times to cross-community projects and to encouraging cross-community co-operation. I can assure the noble Earl that we on these Benches will never be critical of expenditure on those programmes. The programme of community relations work is also inevitably part of the responsibility of the Department of Education. Its youth service programmes have a cross-community dimension.
1653 I should like to ask whether there is more that the Department of Education can do in support of the integrated schools movement. I am pleased to see that an increased allocation is sought for in those schools in the department's Vote 1. However, I am not sure how to interpret the quite substantial decrease in the amount sought for 100 per cent. grants on the provision of premises and equipment.
I believe that there may be some unease about the future. Yet there is evidence, referred to in last year's annual report of the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights, that there is a high level of support for the concept of integrated schooling. Parents are asking that more information should be made available on integrated education. I gladly acknowledge that the Government have given positive support for integrated education. However, perhaps I may suggest that continued commitment on the part of the Ministers and of the department is required in order to ensure that development continues in the future.
That is my main approach to the order. Public expenditure in Northern Ireland is heavy, but justifiably so. Nevertheless, we have a duty to ensure that the money is being spent wisely and efficiently, not only on the provision of existing services but also on the building up of those services which are being demanded by the requirements of a better society in the future.
§ 12.20 p.m.
§ The Earl of Arran
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their particular contributions to this debate this morning. When discussing Northern Ireland there is almost inevitably a tendency to focus on the problems and the difficulties. I do not seek to underestimate them but there is also a positive side which can easily be overlooked. Much has been achieved in Northern Ireland in recent years on the security, economic and social fronts. The local economy has survived the recession remarkably well and is well placed to take advantage of the recovery now under way, while new opportunities are opening up in Europe and beyond. That point was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham.
Northern Ireland also enjoys a high standard of education and a first-rate health service, while significant improvements have been made in housing. I recognise that there is much more to do but let us acknowledge what has been achieved, often in difficult circumstances.
I shall now try to answer some of your Lordships' questions. I am of course always extremely mindful of the help and courtesy that your Lordships have displayed in giving me notice of many of the questions that have been raised this morning.
The noble Lord, Lord Blease, asked about voluntary activity units. The Voluntary Activity Unit has assumed lead responsibility on community development and will provide structures necessary for interdepartmental consideration of key issues in this field. In establishing the appropriate interdepartmental liaison machinery, Northern Ireland departments will have regard to the need to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of departments' existing 1654 commitments to community development, and ensure as far as possible that there is coherence between existing programmes which have a community development dimension. I am grateful for the helpful comments of the noble Lord, Lord Blease, and I undertake to write to him on the funding point and on the annual report. The initial task of the Voluntary Activity Unit will be to prepare a draft strategy statement on the unit's precise aims and role and, as promised in the Strategy for the Support of the Voluntary Sector and for Community Development in Northern Ireland, the voluntary and community sector will be consulted on this. Work on drafting a strategy statement is presently under way.
The noble Lord, Lord Blease, also asked how the new Structural Fund regulations will work. These have not yet been agreed but it is likely that in Northern Ireland they will work in a broadly similar way to last time. A plan and operational programmes will be submitted to the Commission which will respond with a community support framework. This will set out the areas to be funded.
The noble Lord, Lord Blease, also referred to a number of recent reports on the Northern Ireland economy. Business confidence surveys act as an important source of information on local economic trends and attract a good deal of media attention. The aim of the Northern Ireland Economic Council discussion paper was to assess the accuracy and reliability of the results of the two surveys published in Northern Ireland on a regular basis. These are the PA Consulting Group Quarterly Survey of Business Prospects and the CBI Business Confidence Survey. The council concluded that, suitably interpreted, surveys of business opinion are useful as economic indicators in the short run and provide greater understanding of business psychology. They can therefore assist in assessing the state of the local economy and act as a guide to possible future economic trends.
The noble Lord also asked about the Government's policy for increasing employment. Achieving higher levels of employment in Northern Ireland depends on increasing economic growth and on Northern Ireland industry becoming more internationally competitive. The Government's strategy to achieve this includes helping companies to identify and remove obstacles of growth; encouraging inward investment; building up management and workforce skills; developing an enterprise culture; supporting innovation and research and development; and targeting programmes, where necessary, on areas of social and economic deprivation and on the needs of the long-term unemployed. The NI EC's suggestion that Government should become an employer of last resort is very radical and will clearly require further study by officials.
The noble Lord also referred to the recent Northern Ireland Economic Council report on the Industrial Research and Technology Unit (IRTU). Let me say that we very much welcome this report, with which IRTU co-operated. The NIEC's conclusions reflect very closely those outlined in IRTU's strategy document Innovation 2000, in particular, the need to 1655 raise both the level and quality of R&D activity in Northern Ireland. IRTU's recently published corporate plan for 1993–95 will address many of the NIEC's concerns; for example, the need for close collaboration with universities and others involved in industrial R&D and in promoting awareness campaigns. The unit's funding is slightly lower this year but this is due to the fact that additional resources were given last year. However, I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Blease, in answer to his points on monitoring.
As regards the extension of time for consultation on the health and personal social services order, new legislation on health and social services trusts was published for consultation on 17th June. The period of consultation is due to end on 6th August. I will, however, take into account the noble Lord's concern about the timing proposed.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked about the Government's response to the recent public consultation exercise on the discussion document Crime and the Community. Your Lordships will recall that this document articulates a coherent set of criminal justice policies and initiatives for Northern Ireland, including a proposed community safety strategy. The document was published in March and comments were sought by 30th June. A number of interesting, constructive and useful responses have been received. Others are still awaited. The Government will give careful consideration to these responses before taking decisions on the way forward. The noble Lord also emphasised that effective crime prevention requires good co-ordination between government departments. The Government agree strongly with that. That is why one of the elements in our proposed community safety strategy is to improve arrangements for co-ordination within central Government. Our aim is to link any new arrangements, where appropriate, into existing inter-departmental co-ordinating arrangements. The noble Lord's point is therefore a valid and constructive one.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, also asked about the refurbishment programme for Belfast Prison. This will begin later this year. Present plans provide for the completion of extensive preliminary work to improve the services and up-grade the security of the prison before the refurbishment of cells can begin in the summer of 1995.
On the segregation and integration of prisoners, there has been no change in the policy re-iterated by my noble friend Lord Belstead in this House on 4th March 1992 in responding to the report by my noble friend Lord Colville on the management of prisoners from opposing factions in Belfast Prison. Segregation of prisoners acts against security, the best interest of prisoners and staff and the efficient management of the prison service.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, also asked about the revision of prison rules. I hope that the extensive review of the 1982 prison rules, which will involve consultation with a wide range of interests inside and outside the prison service, will be completed by the end of 1994. He also asked about fine defaulters. The 1656 apprehension and imprisonment of fine defaulters often incurs costs—to the RUC and prison service in particular—out of all proportion to the sums owed. Accordingly, we are reviewing current enforcement measures and examining cost-effective alternatives to imprisonment. The noble Lord asked when the relevant legislation on unit fines will be ready. In March the Government published the discussion paper Crime and the Community in which we sought comment on a range of criminal law issues in Northern Ireland, including unit fines. The closing date for comments was 30th June. In conjunction with the publication of the paper, officials had been working on legislation to introduce unit fines in Northern Ireland.
However, as the noble Lord will know, the Government announced on 13th May their proposal to abolish unit fines for England and Wales. In the circumstances, the proposal for a draft Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order published on 8th June does not include provisions for unit fines. The analysis of the responses to Crime and the Community will help inform my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as to how he might best ensure that fines imposed in Northern Ireland take sufficient account of offenders' means.
The noble Lord, Lord Cooke of Islandreagh, raised a number of interesting points. First, in relation to structural funds, I can assure the noble Lord that the Government will fully accept the additionality requirement in the new EC regulations, just as they accept the existing requirement. All receipts, including those for Northern Ireland, will continue to be handled in a way which fully satisfies the additionality criterion.
In relation to compensation, the principle behind compensation for criminal damage to property in Northern Ireland is that the claimant is restored to his former situation, so far as money can achieve that. Deductions to take account of betterment are fully compatible with the principle that the claimant should not be enriched. I may add that the Compensation Agency is aware of the difficulties which betterment deductions may cause applicants and is therefore careful to minimise its effects by carefully examining each individual case.
Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Cooke of Islandreagh, asked about the starting date of the second phase of the dual carriageway between Antrim and Ballymena. Under current plans this is due to commence in the latter part of 1996–97, but I can assure the noble Lord that the matter is kept under continual review.
The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, asked about the future of the Royal Group of Hospitals. I was very concerned by the stories which have been circulating about the Royal Victoria Hospital. I want to say again that there is no question of the hospital closing, as has already been said by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. Nor is there any conspiracy to reduce it to a second-rate hospital. The Royal is a great hospital and it is this Government's wish that it should remain so. In the past five years alone £13 million have been spent on major schemes, to say 1657 nothing of spending on minor ones. There are already further schemes on site and in the pipeline amounting to £18 million. Those figures speak for themselves.
The reforms in the National Health Service have brought changes to the majority of hospitals and the Royal cannot expect to be immune from the effects of the reforms, particularly those arising from the introduction of the internal market. The reforms are designed to improve standards of healthcare and I am sure that the Royal Victoria Hospital will continue to provide a range of first-class services.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, asked why the funding for the Department of Finance has been reduced. The reasons are largely technical. The main decrease is in the running costs of the Valuation and Lands Agency which was launched in April 1993. Vote 2 reflects an overall decrease in superannuation payments. In Vote 3 the sums available for community relations have been increased by some £100,000.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, also asked a similar question about the Department of Economic Development votes. The reduction in the sum granted to the Department of Economic Development is largely attributable to the privatisations of Harland and Wolff and Shorts, and the effects of the new industrial development strategy, which aims to make more effective use of resources to improve the competitiveness of Northern Ireland companies. These changes in provision do not reflect any reduction in Government commitment to industrial development, which remains the second public expenditure priority after law and order.
The noble Lord also referred to housing conditions. The Government's record on housing in Northern Ireland is one of great success. By 1987 unfitness levels had been reduced by 35 per cent., and the 1991 survey showed that, in comparable terms, there had been a further reduction of 20 per cent. The number of dwellings lacking basic amenities, such as a bath or internal lavatory, fell from 120,000 in 1974 to 19,000 —or 3 per cent. of the housing stock—in 1991. Certainly we recognise that there are still problems in the private sector and in rural dwellings. The Government have increased by £7 million the funding allocated this year to tackle those problems.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, raised a number of points in relation to the health service, for which, as he rightly pointed out, I have Ministerial responsibility.
The noble Lord asked about the proportion of patients in Northern Ireland waiting for treatment for more than one year. Traditionally, admissions to hospital in Northern Ireland have tended to be greater per head of population than in England. What the noble Lord said about the proportion of patients in Northern Ireland waiting for treatment for more than one year is therefore true. However, in the past two years considerable resources (£2.2 million) have been provided to reduce the length of time people have to wait for treatment in Northern Ireland. In March 1991 there were 8,640 waiting longer than one year for treatment, namely 32 per cent. of the total number waiting, whereas in March this year the number waiting more than one year had been reduced to 18 per 1658 cent. I should add that I have secured further resources of almost £10 million over the next three years to provide additional operations. mainly in cardiac surgery but covering other specialties where patients are also having to wait unduly.
The noble Lord asked about the high level of deaths among men from coronary heart disease. Because of Government concern at the high level of heart disease the Northern Ireland Change of Heart Coronary Prevention Programme was launched in 1986. Since then death rates from coronary heart disease in men have fallen by about 25 per cent. Despite that improvement, heart disease remains a major health problem in Northern Ireland. The Health Promotion Agency, which manages the Change of Heart programme, will therefore continue to give a high priority in its work to tackling the major risk factors associated with heart disease. As the noble Lord would expect, these include smoking, faulty nutrition and lack of exercise.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, also asked about the response of the Social Security Agency to the PAC report on over-payment of income support and mortgage interest. The Comptroller and Auditor General's report found the major cause of financial error in 1991–92 to be related to mortgage interest payments. Those cases are now being reviewed, over-payments identified and repayments sought where appropriate. The new system of paying mortgage interest direct to lenders and recovery of over-payments from lenders should ensure that a similar situation should not recur. The Social Security Agency, in conjunction with the Benefits Agency. is reviewing and seeking to improve its arrangements for checking the accuracy of payments.
The department ceased collecting details of the total amount of debt outstanding in respect of social security payments because the information being collected was not very accurate. Following the agency's review of its debt management arrangements, it was decided to develop a computerised over-payment recording system which would provide accurate details of total debt. That system is nearing completion and is due to be piloted in July with implementation in all offices before the end of the year.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked about the level of publicly funded child care in Northern Ireland. The Government consider that it is important to encourage a mixed economy of public, private and voluntary child care provision and there has been continuing improvement in the overall level of day care in Northern Ireland in recent years. As a result of a number of social and policy developments, Ministers in Northern Ireland established an inter-departmental review of policy on early years provision, and a report is expected to be published in the near future. That report will form the basis for the future development of services.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, also asked about the resources available for tourism in Northern Ireland. The provision for the Northern Ireland 1659 Tourist Board for 1992–93 of £10.7 million includes an extra £1 million which was provided to meet specific and inescapable pressures.
The noble Lord also asked about the PAC report on LEDU performance. The report is a very positive one and the Department of Economic Development is currently considering the points which have been raised. The noble Lord will appreciate that it is not normal practice to comment on a report until a memorandum of reply has been laid before your Lordships' House.
Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, suggested that more information should be made available about integrated schools. Information services are provided to parents and schools by the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, which works closely with the Department of Education and receives grant aid from the Government. The publicity arrangements over the coming months include, for example, road shows, public seminars, stands at public events and television programmes. A measure of the success which has been achieved is the significant growth in the number of new integrated schools since the Education Reform Order 1989 brought in new provisions to encourage and facilitate integrated education. There are now 18 integrated schools spread throughout Northern Ireland, and proposals have been published to open another three new integrated schools this coming September. A further three new groups of parents are also considering proposals for next year.
I conclude by thanking your Lordships for participating in the debate. Noble Lords have shown their customary interest in and profound knowledge of matters affecting Northern Ireland. The significant sums sought in this order will enable us to build on the progress which has already been made in the economic and social fields in Northern Ireland. I commend the order to the House.
On Question, Motion agreed to.